What Are You Projecting? Reflections on A Fantastic Woman
Writer-director Sebastián Lelio's latest feature tells the story of a transgender woman who, following her partner's death, is deprived of her right to grieve for her loss. This arthouse gem's production team includes Neruda director Pablo Larraín, and Toni Erdmann director Maren Ade.
On Sunday 4 March 2018, A Fantastic Woman became the first ever Oscar winner to feature a trans storyline with an openly transgender individual in the leading role. This remarkable moment in (film) history also marks Chile's first ever victory in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film also took home the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay in Berlin last year.
It's often said that cinema holds up a mirror to the world, and forces us to reflect on ourselves and those around us. Diego Aparicio, UCL alumnus and member of the UCL Film & TV Society takes a long, hard look at the many mirrors and reflections in this superb film.
A Fantastic Woman is simply mesmerising. The mise en scène and Benjamín Echazarreta's camera work are reminiscent of David Lynch’s work, while the plot movements borrow something from Alfred Hitchcock. The story is driven by a sense of mystery and suspense, with hints of magical realism that work alongside the film’s lighting and colour palette to produce a dream-like flavour.
The dialogue, written by Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, is never superfluous, and is always on point with not a single line going to waste. Daniela Vega's character, Marina, is both well-written and brilliantly enacted: a vision of tranquillity on the surface, but a raging fire within. Vega’s own talents (she is an accomplished operatic singer) add a special note of authenticity to her character's background.
The film may not be overtly political or in-your-face when it comes to queer rights, but it is unambiguously defiant of the status quo in its own subtle ways. Strong, resilient, and ever so human, Vega's powerful breakthrough performance sheds a whole new light on the trans community. With trans representation that is as respectful as it is empowering, A Fantastic Woman takes a long-awaited, steady step forward for human rights.
SETTING THE SCENE
The film opens with an unhurried look at some very picturesque and enigmatic waterfalls. These shots are followed by a gentle sequence where a man we will later know to be Orlando (Francisco Reyes) relaxes at a public bath, prepares himself for the evening ahead, and realises that he has misplaced some tickets for a planned getaway. Soon after, Orlando heads to a restaurant where we meet Marina (Daniela Vega) who is in the midst of a performance on stage. Together, Orlando and Marina celebrate Marina’s birthday where Orlando reveals that he has misplaced some tickets for a trip to the Falls of Iguazú.
The celebration is followed by the sudden death of Orlando. Marina hardly has the chance to take in what has happened before the hospital staff and police start to question her and imply suspicion. If the discrimination Marina faces during the ensuing investigation is questionable, society's ignorance, prejudice and, often, hate are a certainty.
Following Orlando's death, Marina has to fight for her basic rights, her home and even the custody of her dog. Marina’s relationship and cohabitation with Orlando mean little to the law, and much less to Orlando's family, who even deny her the right to attend his funeral. With the tickets to the Falls of Iguazú missing, the prospect of even a temporary escape seems long gone. Marina's last remaining link to Orlando is a mysterious key: but what does it unlock?
Reflections and Projections
Be it through the use of mirrors, reflections in car windows, breaking the fourth wall, framing devices or simply the trans gaze, A Fantastic Woman repeatedly asks the viewer to take a close look at Marina, forcing us to question what we see. Some characters project their own monstrosity onto her, while others will see their own humanity reflected back at them.
Prejudice and Projection
After being turned away at Orlando's funeral, Marina is harassed by members of his family (his son included) who take her into their car by force, tie her arms behind her back and wrap her head in tape. After ditching her in an alley, the camera focuses on the image that Marina sees in the reflection of a car window. In her disfigured face, tape all over it, pulling at her lips and nose and eyes, we see a glimpse of the monster those men see in her, only it is their own monstrosity that is really being reflected.
What Are You Projecting?
Mirrors appear again and again in A Fantastic Woman, emphasising that this is a film about identity and perspective. Lacan would be pleased. While Marina is walking on the streets, she is confronted by a large mirror that some workers are carrying across her path. She stops and stands for a moment to see her reflection. The fact that someone else is holding the mirror gives the shot an interesting perspective: what we see in ourselves is very often what others want us to see.
Behind the Mirror
Another particularly poignant use of mirrors comes while, alone in her apartment, Marina lays naked on her bed, looking into a small mirror that is placed over her crotch. This time she's holding the mirror and it is her own perception of self that is reflected back at her and the viewer. By obscuring her genitalia with this mirror, Marina’s sexual identity transcends any notion of a ‘biological’ gender, and hers is something that only Marina is entitled to define. We don't need to know what lies behind that mirror to respect her as a human being.
In contrast to those instances where Marina is empowered to define her own gender is a scene where she has to strip naked. While she undresses, a female police officer and a male doctor inconsiderately discuss the issue of her name and whether they should address her with a male or female pronoun. In this moment Marina’s existence is under scrutiny by both (binary) genders, made all the worse by their indiscretion. The camera subjects her to an invasive gaze from both them and the audience, as voyeurs of a sort, curious to see what her naked body looks like.
When Marina exposes her genitalia, again, the audience is not shown anything, but the doctor’s face cannot conceal a hint of shock, and we can almost feel the shame painted on Marina’s face.
A fantastic screenplay
What is most striking about the writing is the dialogue. Marina's strength of character is always highlighted by those few honest words she says in response to people's ignorance and insults. Despite everyone's suspicions about the nature of her relationship with Orlando, Marina reminds them (as well as us) that they had shared ‘a consensual relationship between two adults’ and that deserves to be respected. When Orlando's son and ex-wife, disgusted, ask 'What are you?', her reply is quietly defiant in its simplicity: 'I'm the same as you. Flesh and bone'. Is Orlando's wife allowed to be bitter about her husband falling in love with another woman? Absolutely. But her insults towards Marina are all misdirected and bigoted: 'It's just perversion', she tells her. 'I look at you and I see a chimera... I'm sorry', she says, but she isn't really. 'What are you sorry about?', Marina calmly retorts (and I can feel a lump in my throat), 'You're normal, ma'am'. And she's right: bigotry and social hypocrisy are still so often considered normal, and yet people deciding how they want to live their own lives, respectful of others, is seen as perversion.
Even when Marina becomes a victim of violence, be that physical or verbal, the script never tries to make us feel sorry for Marina. She never cries in response. The one and only time Marina allows herself to cry is when she finally gets her chance to say goodbye to her loved one, alone and away from people's judging eyes.
Battling the Elements
A recurring use of symbolism in the film sees Marina fighting against the elements. This could be interpreted as Marina's battle against what is conventionally seen as 'natural', as she fights for the right to be what feels natural to her.
An iconic example of this, crossing the line between symbolism and magical realism, is when she's literally pushing against the wind to make her way forward. This struggle against the elements could also be seen as a fight against the trials and hardships we're often faced with in life. This idea is captured again with another scene in which Marina makes the occasional air punch while standing in front of a poster on her bedroom wall depicting a high tide.
A Fantastic Woman gives more than a gentle nod to a number of important auteurs. 'We are big fans of Hitchcock', screenwriter Gonzalo Maza confessed at the London Film Festival in 2017. 'It's a film about identity, like all Hitchcock films.' Hitchcock's presence can be felt in the way the plot unfolds through a series of coincidences; and in the way that one of the plot devices seemingly most relevant to the story ends up having little to do with anything at all. Among Orlando’s belongings, Marina finds the key. She has no idea what lock it fits, but we get the feeling that she's secretly hoping it will lead her to an escape from the reality she has to face. Again, by sheer coincidence, a visitor to the restaurant where she works gives her a vital clue about the key. The moment when she subsequently discovers that the key opens an empty locker is reminiscent of the moment in Psycho (1960), where all the stolen money is drowned in the water: we think the film is all about the stolen money, but then discover we had it all wrong.
Interestingly, the director revealed in a Q&A at Curzon Bloomsbury that the empty locker (an hypnotic oblong that consumes the screen) was his personal homage to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 'Technically,' he said, 'the key to the locker is a MacGuffin: it gives the protagonist a sense of purpose. And I thought I'd play with that. [...] There is a black void when she opens the locker. Every spectator has their own idea of what Marina is going to find in the locker when she opens it. It tends to be the plane tickets to the Iguazú Falls. It might be something else, but it doesn't matter. It's how film works. [...] It's a game of projections.”
A bit of Hitchcock is also present in the spectacularly well-suited, eerie atmosphere created by the score. During the same Q&A, Lelio admitted to shamelessly asking the film's composer Matthew Herbert (aka Mr Vertigo - coincidence?) to write something he described as 'Bernard Herrmann meets Henry Mancini'.
The colours, the neon lights, the living guided by the dead through visions: those all seem like Lynch influences, although this was not officially confirmed by Lelio. There's a very Mulholland Drive (2001) or Elephant Man (1980) quality to the moment between dream and reality when Orlando’s mysterious locker is finally opened: the camera plunges straight into the darkness, emerging to find that what the protagonist has unlocked is not merely an empty container, but a whole new way of perceiving their reality. The locker is empty because that's how life works. Marina is not given anything in exchange for enduring her hardships. She is firmly grounded to reality in a sequence straight out of a dream, and that's a pretty powerful antithesis. From then on, she has no false hopes of escaping; just a determination to move forward in life and get things done.
The film also features a scene reminiscent of Haneke: the claustrophobic scene where Marina is at the car wash, and she suddenly has a vision of Orlando in the back seat. Can you shoot a scene inside a car wash by chance? The Iguazú Falls are also somewhat of a parallel to the Australian beach in Haneke's The Seventh Continent (1989): both destinations embody the respective protagonists' yearning to escape the reality they're trapped inside of.
Alas, Lelio admitted that paying homage to Haneke was not actually his intention. 'I see the similarity,' he said, 'but the waterfalls were just used as a resource here. It's a typical thing to do,' he smiled. 'The waterfalls were actually part of the script pretty much since the very beginning.'
Perhaps surprisingly, Don Pedro Almodóvar was not a direct influence in the making of this film. Other influences the director acknowledges are Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin (2013), Kimberly Pierce's Boys Don't Cry (1999) and Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992), as well as Louis Malle’s work, particularly in the way he shot Jeanne Moreau walking under the rain in Lift to the Scaffold (1958).
A transgenre film
A Fantastic Woman could be described as a romantic film, but it is also a thriller in some ways, a mystery; it is a social drama, and a character study, but with hints of fantasy. 'The idea had come to me, at some point during the writing process, to make this a transgenre film,' Lelio said. 'The film poses the question "what is a woman?" But as a filmmaker, it allowed me to pose the question "what is a film?" and "what is a film identity?" And in that sense, the film is trans. It's genre-fluid.' In Spanish, Lelio's mother tongue, the same word (transgénero) describes both a film in terms of genre as well as a trans individual.
This may come as a surprise, but the film was not initially going to be about a transgender woman at all. During his Q&A at the London Film Festival, screenwriter Gonzalo Maza revealed that this was something that was discussed fairly late in the writing process. The script was always about a woman dealing with the loss of her (older) partner, but the transgender element was added in later. 'It was a very important moment in the process,' Lelio confirmed during the Curzon Bloomsbury Q&A. 'There was something very moving about that idea, but at the same time full of dangers... so that was a good sign, I guess. Then we decided to stop writing and go meet some transgender women in Santiago. [...] I wasn't sure that I wanted to make a film with that subject at the time, but everyone was saying "You should meet Daniela"'.
The team was so impressed with her acting skills, her singing, and her personality, that they decided to bring her on as a consultant for the project. And that was it. After about a year of Daniela generously sharing her experiences as part of conservative Chile's trans community, Lelio decided that she should play the protagonist in the film he and Maza had been writing. The film is not biographical, but it features scenes (such as the ones where Marina is referred to by her given name, 'Daniel') that were inspired only after hours of talking with Daniela. During their meetings with Vega, the creatives realised how little they knew about the trans community; and she was very open when it came to discussing the subject.
'I was interested in [the subject] at a human level, not because I'm a knower.’ Lelio explained at the Bloomsbury Q&A, ‘but it felt wrong to do it without a transgender woman. Behind the tonalities and polymorphism of the film, there is a real beating heart. A person that this film is documenting. And this is something that Daniela brought with her. There's something about her body, and her eyes, and the story that is impregnated in her skin, and this is something that the camera knows. And I think that that throws the film into a different dimension. I'm not saying better, I'm just saying different.'
Marina's singing voice is also something Vega brought into the film. In fact, the script initially featured a pop singer in the lead role, but was re-written to tie in with Marina's training as a lyrical singer. Interestingly, the Handel aria that she sings at the very end of the film, 'Ombra mai fu', was originally composed to be sung by a soprano castrato (a castrated male). Whether this choice was intentional or not is unclear, but it seems like a fitting choice for the film.
At the London Film Festival Q&A, Gonzalo Maza commented that 'the film was received surprisingly well in Chile. Interestingly, people's reactions to it mainly focused on two things: one was praise for Daniela's talent; the other was the realisation that people really have no idea about the issues that transgender individuals are faced with'.
Let’s hope that A Fantastic Woman will not be the last film of its kind to raise awareness about these important issues. Although LGBTQ+ representation in film has improved considerably in recent years, it remains to be seen whether a film can centre on a queer protagonist whose story is not one of repressed feelings, hardship, or the pain of thwarted love.